TOKYO (Reuters) – US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis attempted to reassure Japan on Friday that Washington had considered his interests in talks with North Korea during a stopover in Tokyo, which highlighted the concerns of the close US ally over the negotiations.
Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis hold a Gunbai war fan during a photo session prior to their meeting at the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo, Japan, on June 29, 201
8. Tomohiro Ohsumi / Pool via Reuters  Japan's defenses were stunned – recent US President Donald Trump's decision to put a stop to "expensive" military exercises with South Korea, which have long been seen in Tokyo as a deterrent to North Korea's threats.
Trump's June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore also appeared to be unsound of Japanese security concerns over a missile program that sees Tokyo as a direct threat.
But Mattis, the longest-serving US government official to visit Japan, reiterated the US goal of dismantling North Korea's nuclear programs and ballistic missiles. He said that the US-Japan alliance remains "firm" and unabated by talks between the US and North Korea.
"We are currently in negotiations with North Korea, which have been unprecedented so far, but in this dynamic time, the long-standing alliance between Japan and the United States is firm," said Mattis, standing next to Defense Itsunori Onodera.  Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said the two allies must "keep our relations stable" and express concern that international sanctions against North Korea will continue until all its weapons of mass destruction are eliminated.
Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis are reviewing an honor guard on June 29, 2018, prior to their meeting at the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo, Japan. Tomohiro Ohsumi / Pool on Reuters
Tokyo has been rattling in recent years repeatedly North Korean test rockets that have flown over Japan or landed in waters claiming Japan as its exclusive economic zone.
"So there are many things to work on," he told Mattis.
Japan, which is home to some 50,000 US military personnel, including the largest overseas concentration of US Marines and a US Marine carrier strike group, relies on Washington for defense.
In another allusion to Japanese concerns, Mattis repeatedly noted that Japanese had been abducted by North Korea to train their spies, and even noticed a pin worn by Onodera.
"I respectfully note the blue pin you are wearing, and we're with you," Mattis commented as he sat down for talks at the Department of Defense. He later said that the kidnapped question was "always present in our deliberations."
Japan has urged the United States to make the issue of abductees a priority in its talks with North Korea.
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U.S. Ambassador William Hagerty hosted family members of Japanese kidnappers at his Tokyo residence in April and regularly wears the pin and Trump raised the matter in Singapore.
Japan, which could seek direct talks with North Korea to discuss the return of abductees abducted in the 1970s and 1980s, said it would not provide Pyongyang with economic aid until the problem is resolved and normal diplomatic relations have been established.
HOLDING WARSGAMES & # 39;
Mattis was at the last stop of a weeklong trip to Asia, where he made similar assurances to South Korea on a brief visit to Seoul on Thursday.
He assured the South Korean government of an "iron" commitment to its security, including its troop numbers of around 28,500 troops.
In Seoul and Tokyo, he also defended Trump's decision to end "war games" and said that would help the diplomats negotiate.
"This decision was taken to make room for our diplomats to negotiate strongly and to increase the prospects for a peaceful solution on the peninsula," Mattis said.
"At the same time, we maintain a strong cooperative attitude of defense to ensure that our diplomats continue to negotiate from a position of undisputed strength."
Many national security experts have challenged the move to end the exercises, an important concession to the North that over time could undermine the readiness of the US and South Korean forces stationed on the peninsula.
coverage by Phil Stewart and Tim Kelly; Arrangement by Michael Perry and Richard Pullin